UK Lagging in Drug Policy Reform

UK Lagging in Drug Policy Reform

This article originally published at

Drug policy has in much of the world become a major issue as of late. Marijuana policy reforms have been successful in numerous US states, and even seem to have accelerated since the 1990s. There also seems to be great interest in the issue recently in many Latin American countries. High-ranking public figures in the region, including current and former heads of state, have spoken out in support of liberalizing their drug policies, and the region has shown significant progress in actually changing policies as well. There is an ongoing trend in the member states of the European Union toward removing or simply not enforcing criminal penalties for possession of marijuana. This sometimes applies to other drugs as well.

The UK, by contrast, seems to lag behind in drug policy reform. This may be partly a matter of lesser public interest. Public support for legalizing marijuana is significantly lower in the UK than in the US, where it is estimated at 52%. However, support for cannabis reform is no fringe matter in the UK either. A poll from February of this year puts the number supporting legalization at 41% in the UK, with another 12% in the same poll supporting the decriminalization of  small-scale possession. Only 35% supported current or harsher penalties for marijuana offenses.

For illegal drugs more broadly, the public views are significantly less favorable, which might explain the lack of reform outside of marijuana laws. Firstly, there is still a common perception in the UK that many illegal drugs, including marijuana, are more dangerous to the health of the user than alcohol and tobacco. A 2008 poll by The Observer asked, in regard to a list of well-known drugs, “which would you rank as having the least level of [health] risk?” Alcohol and tobacco were chosen by 47% and 23% of respondents respectively, while marijuana, strangely, was chosen by only 17%. LSD, with zero documented fatalities and no known toxic dose, trailed distantly at 3%.

In the same poll, 38% claimed they would support “a scheme whereby it is no longer a crime to possess drugs, but it is a criminal offense to supply them,” with 62% opposed. This is arguably not far from the results of the February poll, in which 60% agreed that “the law in the UK should stay as it currently is, so that possession of illegal drugs remains a criminal offense.” Another 21% believed that “an experimental trial of decriminalization should take place for a limited time period in some parts of the UK, to allow its effectiveness to be evaluated,” while 14% agreed that “the law in the UK should be changed, so that the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs is “decriminalized”, as described.” The 2001 Portuguese drug policy reform and its results were briefly described in the relevant poll question.

Given these numbers, while the policies on “hard” drugs may actually reflect public opinion, why has Britain had such little success in reforming even its marijuana laws? One possibility is that the laws in the UK have not been enforced as aggressively as in the US, and thus the resulting problems have not been severe enough to provoke as much activism.

One major driver of reform is the social and financial cost of maintaing the world-record prison population of the US, where the incarceration rate is approximately 5 times that of the UK. This has to do largely with the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the US, which mandate far lengthier prison sentences than any drug laws in the UK.

Advocacy for the issue certainly seems more widespread on the other side of the Atlantic. In the US, there are numerous high-profile organizations focused exclusively on drug policy reform, such as Marijuana Policy Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (of course), Drug Policy Alliance, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. All of these organizations have repeatedly gained mainstream media exposure for their representatives in recent years. A listing of the organizations LEAP has collaborated with, the vast majority of which are based in the US, gives an impression of how well-established advocacy on the issue is in that country.

There are, though, certainly activists in the UK dedicated to the issue. One such group dealing with the subject exclusively is the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Release, a center of expertise on drugs and drug laws, endorses legalization and regulation of currently illicit substances, as does Transform. The center of expertise DrugScope “consistently question the value of criminal justice approaches to lower level drug offenses, particularly possession.”

Another, though arguably connected explanation is simply that established political authorities are still hostile to even modest reforms. The 2003 vote to downgrade cannabis from Class B to Class C, an initial small concession to evidence-based drug policy, was reversed in 2008. David Nutt was forced out of his position as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 for publishing a more accurate assessment of the harms of various drugs than current laws imply.

Although the Greens openly support legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of other drugs, while the smaller Liberal Party endorses the legalization of all drugs, both the Labour and Conservative parties essentially avoid the issue. This is despite a significant share of their voters approving of a more liberal cannabis policy. The February poll mentioned above showed support for legalizing marijuana at 40% among those planning to vote for the Conservative Party and 43% at those planning to support Labour. Those numbers rose to 50% and 55% respectively when support for decriminalization of possession was added.

The Liberal Democratic Party has at least shown some interest in the issue, with MP Tom Brake recently endorsing “moving away from criminalizing individuals and vulnerable drug users,” and similar general statements being made in the party’s 2005 and 2010 manifestos. In 2011 the party proposed decriminalizing the personal possession of all drugs and legalizing and regulating the cannabis industry, and supported a similar measure in 2002. This is somewhat in line with the already cited poll from this year, which estimates that 64% of respondents planning to vote for the Lib Dems endorsed some liberalization of cannabis laws, including 53% supporting legalization.

The Lib Dems still do not see fit to list anything relating to drugs in the “what we stand for” section of their website, however. Similarly, the Tories avoid the subject in their listing of issues on their website, and recent manifestos continue to defend harsh prohibition measures. Labour provides similar rhetoric in their manifestos from the same years, including calling for the expansion of mandatory drug testing, and even seizing the “assets and property of drug dealers and other major criminals.”

Drug policy in the UK still lags behind public opinion on the issue. Considering their dramatically falling membership, the larger political parties might do well to engage more seriously with the topic.


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